This past spring, I signed up for a poetry class, and I did so with serious trepidation. As a fiction writer, I haven’t spent much time in the realm of poetry, though I did hang out with a few poets in grad school. As a lot, they were puzzling, prone to short outbursts of sudden conversational insight, as well as to leaving their thoughts half-finished–giving the listener the sense that what they said contained ellipses at the end…Overall, I found them to be, well, flakey. I figured that they perhaps had less stamina than fiction writers–that the best they could do was scribble one page of writing before being exhausted and intellectually spent–they were the sprinters, whereas fiction writers could go the distance, run the marathon. After taking the poetry class and seeing the work required to create a successful poem, I had a new sense of respect and awe for poets.
Also, let’s be honest, I didn’t “get” poetry; didn’t understand the mechanics of it, how a person came up with an idea, how to scan a line, what to do about rhyming (pro or con?). My brush with poetry was limited to high school English class and Walk Whitman’s "I Sing the Body Electric," which made me squirm with embarrassment, or Emily Dickinson’s one about the cracked cup, which seemed sad and totally like something a spinster would write. Aw, poor Emily! I thought. It wasn’t until I read e.e. cummings and Auden that I started to wonder if maybe I had been too dismissive of poetry. The only poem I’d ever written was in first grade for Mother’s Day:
Mom’s are neat
Mom’s are sweat (actual spelling error and/or sophisticated slant rhyme?)
Mom’s are nice
Mom’s are afraid of little white mice.
When I started this poetry class, I was terrified. Mostly, I feared appearing stupid during critiques. What if I accidentally faulted a poem for having sixteen lines or missed a pristine example of enjambment (I still don’t know what this word means)?
As in any good class, we began first by reading collections of poetry. To my relief, I discovered that some poets write in quick snapshot scenes, not unlike a highly condensed short story. They showed me it was okay to write a prose poem, focusing in on one particular thing and telling that story in a shorter form. I also rediscovered the importance of finding the right word. Since poetry is a concise, there’s less room to mess around. Every word, every image, every metaphor carries ten times more weight than it does in fiction. Nothing can be wasted.
I also found a sense of play in poetry that I’d lost in fiction and learned that the sound of words mattered too; they should go trippingly off the tongue. And then my favorite thing about writing a poem was the sense of satisfaction I received in being able to have a whole draft of something in one sitting. Even though I knew I would have to go back over it again and again,
I also discovered that there is poetry in everyday life. Contrary to my beliefs, I didn’t need to find something profound to say about life or death. Instead, I was encouraged to focus on the particular, what it feels like to sit in the chair at the dentist’s office, how I can best describe the splash of light coloring the morning sidewalk, the most apt simile to capture how the cat looks watching a daddy long legs crawl up the bedroom wall. Poetry reminded me that all of it matters. Realizing anew the importance of being exact has helped me improve my fiction writing on both a sentence level and overall.
So, whether you are a poet, an essayist, or a short story writer, consider venturing out of your genre and experimenting with a different form. You might find more than just a renewed appreciation of your fellow artist; you might also uncover a new way to enter into your own work.
Aimee LaBrie is an award-winning author and teaches a fiction workshop for Philadelphia Stories.